For the yin that is Hawaii, the African nation of Botswana clearly serves as yang. Botswana is Hawaii’s antipode – literally, the diametrically opposite point on the surface planet, which would be reached if a hole were drilled from Hawaii through the middle of the Earth. Our islands are surrounded by water; Botswana, on the other hand, is 85 percent covered by the Kalahari desert, aptly named from the Setswana word for “the great thirst.”
Botswana’s alluvial plain may not seem like a place where you would find any kind of luxury. But its beautiful natural expanses and offers of creature comforts are a luxe traveler’s impressive surprise. >>
You see, there’s camping, and then there’s camping. There are nearly three dozen tented safari camps scattered throughout the lush Okavango alluvial plain in Botswana. But to call these “tents” in the usual sense of that word is a lot like calling the Queen Mary a “boat.” Places like the Duba Plains Camp and the Selinda Camp are gorgeous retreats in canvas. Their tents are as large as hotel rooms and include hot and cold running water, showers, toilets and electric lamps. Forget crusty sleeping bags – camps like these have beds so soft, any couch potato would think they had died and gone to heaven.
In August, it is winter in sub-equatorial Africa and surprisingly chilly in the early morning hours and at night. But each night, when you return to these tents, you would find a hot water bottle tucked between the cotton sheets on the bed. This added comfort keeps your toes toasty warm while you snuggle under feather comforters and pillows.
The individual concessionaires who operate the safari camps provide room and board for a single price. Some accommodations cost more than $500 USD per night. A packaged tour for 10 days can easily cost $8,000 USD. But that one fee includes a beautiful tent with private bath, air transportation between camps, three wonderfully hot meals (including fresh vegetables with dinner), bottled water, cold beer, wine, distilled spirits, and on occasion, mail. It also includes a morning and afternoon safari with local native guides driving Land Rovers.
All of this luxury, though, cannot alter one simple fact: The camps are located in some of the wildest game reserves left on the African Continent. The Okavango supports an array of wildlife that is as different as the habitats created by the river of the same name. In the south, the camps are located on small islands, and daily safaris take place in mokoros (dugout canoes). The canoes are poled by the guides along papyrus reed channels filled with hippos, crocodiles and exotic birds. As you move north by plane, the larger game of the savannah appear: wildebeests, cape buffalo, hyena, giraffe, antelope, zebra, lion and of course, elephant.
One tented camp located on the Duba Plains is home to two lion prides, thousands of elephants and a variety of large hoofed mammals. The camp’s manager, Paul Thiery, who gave up a career in London as a stock trader to live in the Botswana bush, can testify to the unpredictability of living amidst such an intense animal population.
“Every day here is a surprise,” he said as we exchanged conversation near the camp’s dining area.
No sooner had those words fallen from his lips than we turned to watch as a trumpeting, charging, and generally angry bull elephant chase one of the cooks from the kitchen. The cook, Letty, threw herself across the threshold of the doorway near to where we were standing, arriving breathless but laughing. Paul, with typical English aplomb, said: “I know you think this was planned to impress you but really that is an angry wild bull elephant!” As he looked across the yard, he added, “You are … we are in their home.”
Travel between the camps is done solely by small plane. In fact, the Cessna C-210 is so small that it seats four people only quite uncomfortably, and baggage is another issue altogether. And those aren’t the only concerns. Landing a large metal object pumping airspeed at 185 knots in a country where creatures bigger than SUVs are wandering about can be dicey. Consider that contrary to every imaginable FAA regulation, elephant and other wildlife stroll across the open, dirt fields that serve as airstrips.
Once on the ground, take solace in what’s ahead: more camping. And in Botswana, you know how rough that can be.
Visit the official Botswana government website (Botswana-tourism.gov.bw) for more information on the country, and check out EyesOnAfrica.net for assistance in planning a safari.